Jess, aged 13, writes: Over the half term, our family became spies at The International Spy Museum in Washington DC. As we had heard that this was the best museum in DC, we were really looking forward to visiting the museum and learning all about the world of spies. Our hopes were very high, and luckily, we were not disappointed! In fact, we all think that the Spy Museum is the best museum that we have ever visited…
Upon entry to the museum, we found ourselves in a room which had lots of different profiles on the walls. Our mission: assume one of the identities of these people, remember all the details about their personal life, and get them all correct when we were tested on them. I became Sandra Miller, a 62 year old female clothes store owner from Chatsworth, Illinois. While mum, Robert, and I had remembered all of the details about our characters, dad couldn’t even remember his name (Dmitri Ivanov)!
Next, we watched a film, which told us all about what it takes to be a spy. It asked us if we were ready to become spies and sleuths, and we certainly were. We had our cover story memorised, and couldn’t wait to go into action.
After the film ended, we found ourselves in a really large room, which was the main part of the museum. This was absolutely massive, and there was so much to see and do. First of all, we went through “border control”, where we answered questions on the screen about our character. Some of the questions were about information that we had not been told, so we had to work hard to come up with the most believable answer. We all passed, and were given more information to memorise about the purpose of our visit, who we were meeting, and where we were going. This was lots of fun.
Mum, dad, Robert, and I all played a game where you had to assess if a situation was being monitored by a security system, hostile surveillance, or if you just happened to come across an unlucky break. We had to press the button we thought it was as quickly as we could, and Robert and I got very competitive! It was very exciting, and interesting to see how many obstacles a spy has to face to get around a place unnoticed.
We learnt about different spy techniques, such as swapping identical bags in a busy street, letting fellow spies know important information by leaving inconspicuous objects in public (such as gum or a cigarette packet), and leaving important documents in hidden places. We looked at pictures to try and find examples of these things, and mum and I spent a lot of time trying to find the right answers.
There was so much to do that I really don’t think I can list it all! Robert and I crawled through a ventilation shaft, and saw people standing around downstairs where we had been standing before. We learnt about how inventions in James Bond influenced real life spy tools, and saw the famous Kiss of Death lipstick-gun used by the KGB from the Cold War; it looked like something straight from a spy film! Other highlights were seeing a Bulgarian umbrella (just like the umbrella used by the KGB in 1978 to assassinate Georgi Markov with a poisoned pellet), and the postbox that notorious CIA double agent Aldrich Ames used to secretly communicate with the KGB. You can see some of these in the video we made of our trip in DC (below).
Another highlight was two videos showing how effective disguise can be. We were shown two people, and had to spot and arrest them when they were among other people. The first video we watched was set in an underground station, and we didn’t manage to get the correct person the first time. We chose the right person the second time, but this was after clicking on every possible person and consequently arresting everyone in the station! This was amazing – the man we chose looked nothing like the man with the large brown beard that we were trying to find. Mum and I also enjoyed the video afterwards that showed us how these people had been made up to look entirely different. We must have spent over an hour in this room, watching videos, listening to audio clips, and being shocked and fascinated
Next, we walked through an exhibit all about spies and codebreaking in the olden times. We learnt about how it played a part in the American Civil War, and how Mary, Queen of Scots, wrote in code about her plan to assassinate Queen Elizabeth I. We found out about spies in Berlin during the Cold War, and I was particularly fascinated by the story of Joan Pujol Garcia, a double agent for the Allies who gave Germany false information during World War II.
When this exhibit was finished, we were tested again on our secret personas. While mum and dad failed completely and were caught, Robert got out of the country but “needed some extra training”. I, on the other hand, passed with flying colours, and may have gloated a bit too much to the rest of the family…
The museum’s temporary exhibition entitled: “Fifty Years of Bond Villains” was amazing. I loved watching the videos, and thought that the parallels between the first Bond film (Dr. No) and the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962 were astonishing. We saw lots of props from the Bond films, entered Blofeld’s lair, and laughed at mum when she screamed (remarkably loudly) at a “shark” that came through a screen. There were lots of games to play, including defusing a “bomb” (only dad succeeded), holding onto a bar for as long as possible, and trying to stop your opponent from working out a secret code. This was brilliant, and I definitely want to see Spectre now!
One of my favourite parts of the museum was found in the James Bond exhibit. It was a collection of films, entitled “My Bond Moment”. These were films narrated by retired spies, recalling times when they found themselves in a situation that could have been a scene in a 007 blockbuster. It was so interesting and unbelievable to think that they attempted these things, and mum had to drag me out afterwards. You can watch the videos here, and I highly recommend you do so.
We rushed through the end of the museum as we had to meet family, but it was still fascinating. The last part was centred around the 21st century, and we learnt about what would happen to America if the electric grids went down. Next came the massive shop which was packed with cool games and memorabilia, and before we knew it, it was time to go.
We must have spent over three and a half hours in the museum, and we definitely could have stayed for longer. I genuinely don’t have a bad thing to say about it, as it was so unique, there was so much to do and see, and it was perfect for all the family. I thing that it is a must do if you are in Washington DC, and I would happily go back again!
Disclosure: The Spy Museum is free for under 6s and costs $14.95 for ages 7-11. Over 12s cost $21.95 each. We were fortunate to be gifted tickets in order to write about our experience. However, there was no input or suggestions about what we should write.
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